Beaten up in a race-related gang riot in Florence Penitentiary in Colorado. The reason? Who sits where in the dining hall. In Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, rumors and suspicion that he was an undercover agent spread among the other prisoners because he had drawn a picture that had been seen by a reporter and featured on the cover of the local paper.
Fulton Leroy Washington (“Mr. Wash”) learned the lessons about making art in prison the hard way after being convicted and sentenced to life without parole in the late 1990s for a non-violent drug-related crime of which he maintains he is innocent.
In prison, Mr. Wash learned to draw and paint in oils and acrylics, and discovered he had talent. He painted portraits of other prisoners, sometimes including their families, in idyllic landscapes, wearing civilian clothes. These photorealistic portraits also incorporated teardrops encapsulating miniature paintings within the paintings that show fears or anxieties they shared with Mr. Wash.
“When I first entered the system, the first thing I noticed was that everyone was afraid of something,” Mr. Wash says. “While I painted, people would talk to me about what they were afraid of – being raped, extorted, beat up by a gang, and some of the inmates were afraid of the prison guards, and some of the prison guards were afraid of the inmates.”
He adds, “They opened up to me because I painted a picture of myself with tears in my eyes standing next to my wife and youngest child. When the inmates saw it they said, ‘I never thought a tough guy like you would cry about anything,’ then they started admitting that they cried too, but for different reasons.”
For much of his life he was plagued by a similar nightmare. “Someone had a knife, cut me up into little pieces,” he says. “I always woke up sweating. Then one day in prison, an inmate with a knife in his hand, stood in front of me. I looked him in the eye, and told him to give me the knife. He backed up when I came closer to take it. Then I never had the dream again.”
Word of his artistic skills spread among his inmates and their families and others about his paintings. Then after he had been incarcerated for 21 years, his sentence was commuted in 2016 by President Obama. Amazingly, Mr. Wash says he’s not bitter or angry about what has happened to him. His faith, as well as his ability to educate inmates through art classes — all while giving them good sense counseling — saw him through his time in prison.
“I believe we are just passing through the human experience. We are all spirits of God,” Mr. Wash says. “Take a glass that is half full of water. Some people see a glass half empty and others see it half full.”
His paintings have been exhibited at many museums and galleries, including UCLA’s Hammer Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the HVW8 Art and Design Gallery at LA, The New York Whitney Museum at New York, and will be at the Palm Springs Museum of Art from April 22 through July 3. At the Made in LA 2020 biennial, his “teardrop” series was awarded the prestigious Mohn Award for Public Recognition, after a vote cast by the general public.
“He’s one of the most authentic artists that I have ever worked with,” says Adam Lerner, executive director of the Palm Springs museum. “He makes parts of hands that come from his heart. That’s because he wasn’t touched while in prison. He comes from tragedy, but managed to turn it around into something beautiful.”
“He is one the kindest and gentlest men I know,” Lerner adds, describing Mr. Wash’s paintings as “figurative painting with a surrealist influence.”
Mr. Wash currently lives in Compton. He was born in Louisiana, and raised in Watts with his eight siblings. But following the riots his step-father moved the family to Gardena. Wash has always been good at creating and won many prizes at school, including awards for making a self-sustained motor generator, a metal jewelry box, a skateboard, and much more.
He credits a strong mother for his success, saying she was his biggest inspiration and influence.
“She always told me, there’s no such word as can’t,” he says. “She only went up to third grade, got married at 13 years old. Later on she got her GED and was my classmate in eighth and ninth grade.”
More information: “Outburst: Mr. Wash” runs April 22 through July 3 at The Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive in Downtown Palm Springs. You can follow him on Instagram here. Cat Makino can be contacted at [email protected]